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Oxbridge interview FAQs

Here we answer some frequently asked questions from students preparing for their interviews at Oxford, Cambridge, and other elite universities. We’re working through a list of FAQs and welcome more questions, so do contact us with whatever you were eager to know but scared to ask!

How useful is it to refer to my extra-curricular exploits in my personal statement?

It depends. Let’s go back to basics.

The personal statement will demonstrate your dedication and commitment to the subject. It’s not so much about stating that you want to study x,y,z but rather you absolutely have to study x,y,z. A crucial part of making this case is demonstrating your affinity for the course (and ability to meet its entrance criteria, to be found on the department websites).

What does this mean? Well, it’s about illustrating your drive to study the subject you’re aiming for by referencing your achievements and ambitions above and beyond your A-level/IB/EB curriculum. Show them that studying x,y,z is part of the bigger picture.

Don’t worry if you’ve only just decided to apply for natural sciences rather than English (I’m not joking – this is a decision I made fairly late in the day!). It might feel like you haven’t had a logical, conscious master plan in place.

However, if you squint a little, and look back at the things you’ve enjoyed and excelled in over the last few years, you’ll be able to pick out the relevant bits and join the dots.

As the unrivalled Steve Jobs said in his Stanford University commencement address:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

So, going back to the extra-curricular question, the answer is do another retrospective join-the-dots. Pick out aspects of your achievements which make the case for your dedication to the subject you were born to study.

For example, a prospective medic may refer to her football refereeing experience as evidence of her people skills, ability to make quick decisions under pressure and deal with disagreement amongst the people she is working with.

All this self-reflection can tie us in knots, so try putting it down and coming back to it, changing your environment (have a wander outside for a bit) or buddy up with a supportive and encouraging friend/teacher/random person.

Here are some more useful bits and pieces:

How do I decide what course I want to study?

This isn’t, strictly, an interview-related question but it’s tackled here as it helps us answer the question ‘why do you want to study x?’ which is very pertinent to the interview! There’s ample material for a book on this one question, but for now start with this.

Have a look at the UCAS employability profiles - really great descriptions of what you get when you study a particular course. And as UCAS itself says: “Making better informed initial choices will normally mean your entry into working life will be less stressful and better planned around your own vision for your future”.

Will the interviewers ask me to ‘big myself up’ at all?

I suspect they seldom put it like! They may well ask you what makes you particularly well placed to study this subject. In any case it is definitely in your interest to have clarity on and confidence speaking about what sets you apart.You don’t have very long to make a positive impression on the interview, so it’s important to seize the opportunity.

Even if they don’t ask you specifically about your strengths, a successful interview candidate will be memorable for the right reasons, and being clear in your own mind about why you’re different is a great way of achieving this.

So, what is so great about you?

Invariably this topic causes propective interview candidates to screw up their faces, cringe and avoid eye contact. For the vast majority of people, it initially feels like boasting or being arrogant.

The good news is there are many ways to describe your strengths without being priggish, arrogant or insufferable. Working out how to do that before sitting down in the interview room for real is definitely a wise move. And what’s the best way to do that? First, you can work out your strengths, and here’s a fun first step you can take right now.

Will the Oxbridge interviewers try to catch me out?

No they are not trying to catch you out. However, they are trying to get you to demonstrate the characteristics they are looking for.

Students who take part in our workshops learn the three key characteristics of an ‘ideal interview candidate’. One of the attributes that contributes to interview success at Oxbridge and other elite universities is what we call the ‘smart cookie’ factor. This is a desire and ability to explore new ideas, make a strong argument, deal with a counterargument, think independently and synthesise new information with prior knowledge. A smart cookie is confident enough to defend their position where appropriate, while flexible enough to respond positively to new information.

It’s very difficult to demonstrate you are a smart cookie when being asked easy questions, to which you know the answer. So, to help you, the interviewer will push you outside your comfort zone into new territory, which might feel a little sticky at first. You will do your best to come up with an answer, based on what you know. Then they might make a counterargument, or throw in a new piece of information that contradicts what you’ve just said, and encourage you to respond.

They are not trying to catch you out. They are giving you the opportunity to show you are a smart cookie. They are doing you a favour by pushing you. If they stuck to asking you easy questions, they’d be preventing you from showing off the best bits of your brain.

So, when you first start doing practice interviews, it might feel uncomfortable. However, with repetition and positive feedback you’ll come to enjoy the stretch. Meanwhile, you will build and sharpen a set of tools for dealing with those challenging questions.

By the end of our workshops, students are often very keen to be asked more deliciously stretching questions. This of course is the right attitude to have, as it demonstrates they have a hunger for learning and improvement, which is just what the interviewer is looking for!

Do they make reference to your UCAS personal statement?

It is likely that they will. Your personal statement (and grades) won you the opportunity of an interview, so there’s bound to be some excellent material to explore during interview. If you haven’t yet written your personal statement, it’s worth bearing in mind that whatever you write sets the scene for your conversation in interview. Unsubstantiated claims should be avoided at all costs! Later on, when you are readying yourself in the last few weeks before your interview, it’s valuable to re-read your personal statement. You may have explained you’ve chosen to read your subject after studying a particular book/seeing an exhibition/hearing an idea. Strengthen your position by revisiting that link in your mind, and perhaps practising explaining your thought process out loud.

How easy was it for you to settle into a college?

Very easy. I remember on the first day of freshers’ week, sitting in The Anchor pub and being surprised and happy that there were so many people who took great pleasure talking about their subjects. There was a girl there, who later became a great friend and very successful scientist, who’d spent her gap year in Mauritius doing field work in the jungle and actually contributing to proper, peer-reviewed research. I had wonderful friends at school, but it was noteable that only a handful of us were enthusiastic enough about our subject to talk about them in a social context. At Cambridge, I felt like I’d come home.

Making friends in new situations is all about finding areas of common ground, and starting your new college life is no exception.

As for the practicalities of living in a new place? Everyone was in the same boat, living in college for the first year, and there were plenty of opportunities to learn the drill. I managed to fall ill during freshers’ week and missed the first week of lectures (not recommended). I slotted back in with a little hard work and help from my new friends. We also had college ‘nannies’, who were students from the third year who were tasked with keeping an eye out for us. We were referred to as ‘nannettes’.




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